Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Rationalism of Father Brown

“The dog could almost have told you the story, if he could talk,” said the priest. “All I complain of is that because he couldn’t talk you made up his story for him, and made him talk with the tongues of men and angels.

“It’s part of something I’ve noticed more and more in the modern world, appearing in all sorts of newspaper rumours and conversational catchwords; something that’s arbitrary without being authoritative. People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. 
“It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.” He stood up abruptly, his face heavy with a sort of frown, and went on talking almost as if he were alone.

“It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; Dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words: ‘He was made Man.’”
 GK Chesterton, The Oracle of the Dog

Reflection – This little bit of Browniania comes at the end of a story in which a dog supposedly denounces the murderer of his master by the canine expedient of woofing at him. The dog’s behaviour actually has revealed the truth of the mystery, but in a completely different way that actually accords with what dogs do or do not know, do or don’t do in their proper canine natures.

But enough of the story, which is one of the strongest in the canon, and hence which I especially don’t want to spoil. It is this piece at the end, though, that I want to reflect on. Superstition, in the years that have ensued between this story’s writing and today, has continued to come in like a sea: from all the weird alternative medicines that come with no research backing them up and very odd ‘scientific’ theories to account for them, to all sorts of strange conspiracy theories claiming to account for any and all things (I’m sorry, but the Illuminati made me type that sentence).

And then there are all the odd academic theories that seem to be like the proverbial ourobouros serpent swallowing his own tail: gender theories where a man is a woman who is a woman who is a man, but gender doesn’t mean anything anyway (huh?), economic theories whereby the disparity in distribution of wealth should be redressed by putting all the money in the hands of a few government technocrats (huh?), to weird historical theories based on no evidence but which are true, as far as I can make out, because people really want them to be.

On and on it goes—alien overlords directing human history and energy fields allowing doctors to treat patients over the phone, and all manner of irrational, anti-rational, sub-rational theories, beliefs, and practices washing over the world (accelerated by the internet, of course). As Chesterton wrote elsewhere, when men stop believing in God, they don’t start believing in nothing, but in anything.

This is all perfectly logical, of course. Once we hold faith in the Christian God, that is, in a God who both established the world in order and is so committed to that order, to the reality and goodness of the world He made, that He became part of that world in a sense, became a man to redeem and restore and complete the world in the order He designed it for, then we are committed as human beings to a deeply rationalist stance towards all created reality.

The Church is not, and never has been, and never will be, anti-science. While it is a slight exaggeration to say, as some do, that the Church ‘invented’ science, certainly churchmen have practiced all of the sciences all along the life of the Church, according to what has been possible and practical in different eras and places. In the immediate ensuing centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire, there was little scientific research done; in the high Middle Ages, there was quite a bit.

It is perhaps a Chestertonian-style paradox (in fact, I’m pretty sure he made this observation somewhere or other) that it is this one mystical claim—‘the Word was made flesh’—that renders the whole of the created order lucid and accessible to reason, and even opens a door to the mind of God that our reason can at least peer through, if not comprehend. And that rejecting that claim leaves us wide open to a chaotic, capricious, a-rational and utterly arbitrary universe, which is the state we increasingly find ourselves in. ‘The Oracle of the Dog’ has indeed proved itself to be a prophetic oracle.

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